The drought and growing public acceptance have turned a process once derided as “toilet to tap” into something politically palatable, and water officials across San Diego County are planning to make reused wastewater drinkable and widespread within a matter of years.

In the city, a $2.85 billion multi-part project, branded Pure Water, is hoping to use wastewater to start producing 30 million gallons a day of drinkable water within the next six years. That’s two years sooner and twice as much water as envisioned just months ago.

“The drought has definitely pushed this project,” said John Helminski, the assistant director of the city of San Diego’s water department. “The fact that we don’t know how long the drought will last. We’re already in the fourth year of drought – if we continue, it could get a lot worse than it is today.”

The city is not alone. The Padre Dam Municipal Water District in East County and a separate group of North County water agencies are each pursuing major projects to recycle wastewater.

Some water utilities already operate separate “purple pipe” recycled water programs that recycle some wastewater – but only well enough to use for irrigation and certain industrial uses. The purple pipe water flows through separate pipes from our drinkable water. The treated wastewater-turned-drinking water is heavily treated and would flow through the same pipes to homes and offices as regular drinking water.

While the city is still looking to expand its purple pipe system, the Pure Water program has in some ways put that on a back burner. While purple pipe water is cheaper for customers, it can only be used for certain things, like irrigation. It also requires a separate pipeline running next to existing pipes for drinking water, which is expensive.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

But out in North County, a group of water agencies is working to expand their purple pipe system while simultaneously beginning to explore efforts to make wastewater drinkable.

“Everybody in the county is looking at this now,” said Kimberly Thorner, general manager of Olivenhain Municipal Water District in Encinitas, a member of the North County group. “You kind of have to because what is going on with the drought.”

Each of the projects aimed at making wastewater drinkable will treat wastewater, send the treated water to a reservoir or underground, treat the water again and then send it to homes and businesses.

The obvious benefit of drinkable recycled water is that thinning water supplies are stretched further. Right now, much of the water officials want to reuse is imported from hundreds of miles away, used once and then dumped into the Pacific Ocean after being lightly treated.

“We recognize that wastewater – as it travels all the way down and is treated partially and put into the Pacific Ocean – is wasted water,” said Padre Dam general manager Alan Carlisle. “And we should be capturing every drop and repurposing it.”

Environmental groups agree, and several of them have endorsed the city’s Pure Water program for this very reason: to curb dumping.

The Padre Dam agency supplies water to about 100,000 people over 72 square miles from Santee to Alpine. If all goes according to plan, within five years, a fifth of the district’s water will come from treated wastewater.

In the city of San Diego, the reusable wastewater program has a long history and was once widely panned. Former Mayor Jerry Sanders once said, “Nooooo” and laughed nervously when asked to drink some of the highly treated water in 2011.

The drought is helping to force everyone’s hand.

Fewer and fewer people react with “yuk” to the thought of purified sewer water. A recent poll by Probe Research for the San Diego County Water Authority found support for reusing wastewater is now at 73 percent. Perhaps that’s because of the drought. Perhaps that’s because of stories noting that everyone already drinks “pee water.” Much of the region’s water comes from the Colorado River, which is used over and over and over again before it arrives in San Diego. City officials say their treated wastewater is purified water “of exceptional quality” and meets all federal and state drinking water standards.

The first part of the city’s Pure Water project will cost about $1 billion. That money will go to upgrade the North City water treatment plant, which is along the 805 near the University of California, San Diego.

Helminski, the water department’s assistant director, said the city is still working on putting together a financing plan for the project, which the City Council would have to approve. The water department hopes to start construction at North City in mid-2019.

From North City, 30 million gallons per day of treated water would be sent east to the 78 billion-gallon reservoir behind the San Vicente Dam near Lakeside. There, the water would mingle with raw water from the Colorado River and Northern California. Water from San Vicente would eventually flow back to the city, be treated once more and then delivered to homes and businesses.

Later, the city would add more treatment capacity by building a new plant in Mission Valley to turn out 53 million additional gallons per day of treated wastewater. All told, by 2035, a third of the city’s drinking water supply is expected to be treated wastewater.

Helminski said the city is also looking at scenarios where it would not have to send the treated water all the way out to San Vicente, which would save several hundred million dollars because the city could lay fewer miles of new pipeline.

Instead, the city would skip storing water at San Vicente and just store it for a shorter period of time at smaller, nearby reservoirs – like Lake Miramar and Lake Murray – before it flows back to the city to be treated once more before it’s used. There may be regulatory and public perceptions hurdles to jump before that happens because the treated wastewater would mix with smaller amounts of other water and be back in taps sooner.

    This article relates to: California Drought, Must Reads, Science/Environment, Water

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and power. You can reach him at or 619.550.5665.

    Julio Lizzo
    Julio Lizzo

    Toilet to tap has not come to a public vote and wouldn't pass if it did.

    People sound like stupid salesman for the toilet to tap program. They try to defend this vile crap with explanations, science, and claims of support. Oceans water is recycled by passing the water into the boiling hot crust and out again though thermal vents, purified from sin. What we really need is our complete water supply from desalinization and rain water.

    Andrew Poat
    Andrew Poat subscriber

    I believe any scientist will tell you that ALL water is recycled - the only question is whether it is recycled by nature (evaporation that returns to earth as rainfall), or by manmade devices (which clean water and return it to the drinking water system).

    SDResident subscriber

    Every city in the country that is located near a river or lake has been recycling water from their upstream neighbors for a long time.

    Why this is controversial is due to the media and politicians using the toilet to tap descriptor.

    mike johnson
    mike johnson subscriber

    I keep hearing all the time about not putting medicine down the toilet. It will pollute the environment. It has never been explained how it will be kept out of the recycled water.

    There was just a scientific report a month ago that free standing water create bacteria. Putting water in a lake will not get rid of the recycled water bacteria. Just make it worse. Pollution going down a river is filters by the environment and the sun. Sitting in a lake is a lot different.

    But forget the science facts. Now it look like it just a public relation game now.

    Wish somebody would dig into the above statements and prove me wrong.

    Sara_K subscribermember

    It’s ridiculous that we heavily subsidize “purple pipe” infrastructure and water, artificially lowering the price for consumers who use it to maintain artificially green landscapes that don’t belong in So Cal. Further treating this water to potable quality makes the most fiscal and environmental sense.

    We should demand our cities do not invest in further expanding purple pipe infrastructure.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    Thank you for the update. It would also be helpful to know where the funding for this project is coming from. Has a funding source been identified? How has it been expedited, to allow this project to move forward ahead of the previous timeline?

    And has the City resolved the structural financial problems and overcharging of home water users that lead to previous violations of the Clean Water Act? These violations were outlined here:

    The "Kroll Report" of 2006 looked at the chronic underfunding of the pension, but also found that the City's mismanagement of various water grants, revolving loans and other funds violated state and federal law.

    It would be a service to readers for you or another reporter to investigate if these known issues have been addressed by the Mayor's office, to prevent further abuse of public funding, and if industrial users are finally paying their fair share as the laws intended- and the city ignored.

    In a nutshell: San Diego has consistently demonstrated that water actually can flow uphill, so long as its towards money.

    Mike Delahunt
    Mike Delahunt subscriber

    Only in California can removing excrement, disease, and God knows what else from toilet water be considered easier/cheaper/safer than removing salt from sea water.

    msginsd subscriber

    @Mike Delahunt Actually, desalination isn't easier/cheaper/safer than recycled because it's not just salt that's being removed, and the energy cost is greater.

    We should be doing both.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Toilet-to-Tap VOSD? Really? Once again you embarrass yourselves with a headline. That was a tagline created by opponents to create populist ire. 

    msginsd subscriber

    @Chris Brewster  Now that VoSD has changed the headline, I'll remove my objection.  But It's a shame that VoSD doesn't give more thought to what is essentially the first impression of an article.  The rest of this one is pretty good.

    Sara_K subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster Some of us have come to shrug off, or even embrace, the once-loaded phrase. Once people understand the purity and safety of the water (and taste it), T-to-T loses its shock value and just becomes a commonplace descriptor. 

    msginsd subscriber

    @Sara_K @Chris Brewster Except that it's not commonplace anymore.  Even Rivard refers to it as "once derided".  And besides, it's inaccurate.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Perhaps so for those in the know. Then there are  the rest of the general public who shun recycling because of gross and inaccurate phrases.The ubiquity of "drinking water" delivery companies demonstrates that many are afraid to drink the water in its current form. (I'm not.) I think educating and warming the general public to the scientific realities of recycling requires that responsible media  lead the way in terms of accuracy. 

    Ry Rivard
    Ry Rivard

    @Chris Brewster  We decided it was indeed too loaded. There were a couple of reasons “toilet-to-tap” initially made sense to me: a) it’s been widely and recently used in other neutral news articles b) it may give readers a clearer sense of what we’re talking about than “recycled water,” which may mean two things, or “indirect potable reuse,” which may mean nothing; and c) the article itself points out the term is one of derision (which may also be an argument against using it in the headline). But, yeah, it was too sensitive to use in the headline and we changed it.

    Belinda Smith
    Belinda Smith subscriber

    Thanks for this update, Ry.

    One thing to note, is that we are pretty much already drinking toilet-to-tap water. I mean if 200 other municipalities along the Colorado have dumped their treated wastewater into it, by the time it gets to us, it's effectively the same thing.

    Also, many parts of the country are already doing this process to increase their water supply. Places like Scottsdale, Texas, Virginia and Orange County all drink it. If you've been to Disneyland, you've drunk it.

    This will be a great weight off San Diego's shoulders to get this project going sooner rather than later.